Earlier start helps Russian River Race rebound

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Roughly 200 people took to the Russian River on Saturday for the 5th Great Russian River Race, an annual watercraft competition featuring canoers, kayakers and standing paddle boarders, with proceeds benefiting the Russian Riverkeeper’s education programs.

The crowd, starting at Rio Lindo Beach in Healdsburg, raced five miles downstream before finishing at Veterans Memorial Beach. Some came for the competition, while others said they came for the adventure.

“It’s so fun for the family,” said Richard James of Oakland, wearing an apron and a chef’s hat to look like a baker. His 7-year-old daughter, dressed like a pink cupcake, beamed with a smile nearby. “We love to be outdoors, and the costumes get the kids excited.”

Santa Rosa residents Andre and Edin Moraes said they signed up for the river race to get outside, and to celebrate Andre Moraes’ birthday.

“It’s our first time, so we’re going slow,” said Andre Moraes, adding that the two are expecting a baby in a month. “We came because we love the river.”

For the ultra-competitive, race organizers this year brought back the 15K river race — suspended last year because of low Russian River flows. This year also featured a new 5K run, organized by the Healdsburg Running Company.

Don McEnhill, executive director for the Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation nonprofit, said the race draws roughly the same number of people annually. He said there’s a core of loyal supporters, plus new faces every year.

“We definitely see lots of new people, and that’s great for us — we want to get people out to the river to have a great time,” McEnhill said. “It helps them establish a relationship with the river, and strengthens that bond.”

McEnhill said that’s especially important during California’s historic four-year drought.

“When people get out here and spend time on the river, there’s a better chance they’ll connect with it, and that increases the chances that they’ll conserve water,” McEnhill said. “Hopefully they’ll be more willing to do all those little things to save.”

Jan Jirout, 36, of Petaluma, said that message resonated with him.

“It’s a good excuse to get out on the river,” Jirout said as he prepped for the race. “And I really like the idea of protecting the Russian River.”

Russian River flows were twice as robust as last year, McEnhill said, allowing racers a better shot of avoiding stalling on gravel and rocks on the riverbed. He attributed the deeper water to the race being held a week earlier than in years past — a move aimed at beating the Sonoma County Water Agency’s calendar in which it curtails the flows downstream.

By noon Saturday, a small crowd had gathered at the beach on Healdsburg’s outskirts. They cheered as Eric McDermott, 28, forcefully rowed his kayak past the finish line, just underneath Healdsburg Memorial Bridge.

“I’m tired; I can’t move my arms,” said McDermott, an avid deep sea diver who lives just outside of Healdsburg. “That’s as hard as I could have paddled.”

It was McDermott’s second race, having first participated three years ago. He sailed past last year’s first finisher, Matthew Moore, 53, of Healdsburg, who came in just after McDermott.

“It was a good obstacle course this year,” said Moore, referring to the standing paddle borders who set for the race this year ahead of the kayakers. “He beat me, but he’s from NorCal, so I’ll accept that.”

McDermott took first place for the 5-mile race, coming in at 43:36, and Carter Johnson of Sausalito was the top finisher for the 15-mile race, with a total race time of two hours, 14 minutes.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemo​crat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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